Personhood in U.S. Constitutional Law




According to philosopher Thomas Hobbes, the world—including human selfishness—is violent, immoral, and ultimately unjust. Therefore, societies establish supreme laws to uphold contracts, preserve property, serve the general welfare, and secure peace. However, a problem arises from Hobbes’ standpoint: if societies thrive upon arbitrary authority, it is only insofar as beneficiaries are able and willing to abide by the law. But given that humans are naturally uncooperative in the Hobbesian worldview, societies must invent something that recognizes and is in turn recognized by the law: a “person.” As a result, humans, non-human entities, and corporations can be personated. Jurisprudence consequently grapples with criteria whereby persons are defined. While Hobbes is not the architect of the U.S. Constitution, his influence on the issue of personhood is most apparent when we ask, “who are the ‘we’ in ‘we the people?’” What counts as a person? No question is more urgent in the course of U.S. events than when personhood is defined by the Supreme Court. From Dred Scott v. Sandford to Loving v. Virginia, from Roe v. Wade to Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization, this course explores numerous landmark decisions that have made and unmade people.